Netflix Movie of the Week #18: Snowpiercer

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The most recent movie in a growing list of American films made by prominent South Korean directors, Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer is one of the most ambitious and challenging sci-fi thrillers in recent memory. The extremely brutal, often bizarre film follows the last group of humans on Earth, after a weather experiment to stop global warming freezes the planet. Aboard the perpetual motion train SNOWPIERCER, a group of oppressed, lower-class survivors led by Curtis (Chris Evans), hatch a plan to make their way to the front of the train to take control, and in doing so improve the quality of life for the passengers living under a makeshift military dictatorship in the rear. Curtis, aided by a series of cryptic messages, pushes his ragged crew through increasing resistance, all while discovering horrific truths about the society they live in aboard the train.

In a time when the science-fiction film market is catered to primarily by sequels and remakes of existing sci-fi properties, a film like Snowpiercer offers fans of the genre a breath of figurative fresh air. Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the film combines original concept sci-fi with Bong Joon-Ho’s unique directorial sensibilities to create a bleak and extremely engaging film. Joon-Ho builds a sense of claustrophobia and dread in the narrow, fastidiously designed train, each car looking markedly different than the last and offering new challenges for the core group of characters.

While the film is in many ways an action movie, Bong Joon-Ho’s style shines through in the myriad moments of conflict and confrontation. Action sequences are often brutally violent and the hyper stylized, providing ample opportunity for Joon-Ho to show off his directorial chops, and remind us why he remains one of Korea’s premier filmmakers. The film is not particularity averse to the idea of killing-off characters, and despite the underlying glimmer of hope that the protagonists cling to, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that things will not end well by the time the story reaches its satisfying and unexpected climax.

If you are interested in something a little out of the ordinary for your next Netflix session, Snowpiercer might be the film for you. Though most of the news surrounding the film was due to its shockingly high VOD sales in comparison to a lackluster theatrical release, Snowpiercer  is ultimately a really good film, and presents a complex and thought provoking story within the framework of its slick, hard sci-fi presentation.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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Netflix Movie of the Week #16: Manhunter

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I had originally written this piece before Halloween, but then things piled up—as they do—and I’m only getting around to sharing it now. Be that as it may, this week’s Netflix pick is very much in keeping with the theme of Halloween, and also happens to be tangentially related to one of the most recognizable horror/thriller properties around, namely The Silence of the Lambs.

Canonically preceding the events of Lambs, Manhunter follows the story of former FBI profiler Will Graham, played by William Peterson, as he is coaxed from retirement to take on one last case—that of the twisted serial killer known as “The Tooth Fairy.” Using his uncanny ability to get inside the headspace of a killer, effectively allowing him to think as they would, Graham finds himself in the company of the incarcerated Hannibal Lecktor, admirably portrayed by Brian Cox, as the pair conspire to get to the bottom of the investigation.

Though not especially successful at the box office, the film enjoyed a bit of a resurgence after its initial video release, and stands as one of my personal favorites within the Lambs mythos. Cox plays an excellent Lecktor, and brings across the subtly menacing and dangerous aura of the character in a way that I believe might make Anthony Hopkins himself proud. Director Michael Mann—a bit of a hit-and-miss filmmaker, in truth—proves that he has an excellent understanding of atmospheric pacing and tension, all while creating a visually interesting and engaging world—with plenty of signature 80s day-glow, naturally.

With a compelling dynamic between Cox and Peterson, and an exciting and well-executed “race against time” style plot, Manhunter, despite the admittedly bland title, is a fun, well-paced thriller that makes the most of its source material.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Oculus Review

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It looks like we’re in for a good amount of supernatural horror movies this year if Wikipedia is to be believed. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones led the pack, followed closely by Devil’s Due, and now Oculus has just bolted out of the gate as well. As so many films compete for a slice of the niche-audience pie, originality will surely be a make-or-break factor in the commercial success or failure of each title. Interestingly, Oculus is kind of an amalgamation of odds and ends from other movies, but proves to be a unique and engaging experience nonetheless.

Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, Oculus is based on a 2006 short film of the same name. Refreshingly, the film places an emphasis on a compelling narrative as opposed to jump scares, which is certainly more than I can say for most horror films these days. More impressive is Flanagan’s expert sense of pacing, as the tension and omnipresent sense of dread is nicely spaced out, leaving room for some welcome character development, adding emotional weight to the story. That being said, Oculus has pretensions towards being a true-blue horror flick, but its oppressive atmosphere and lack of gore seem to put it squarely in the territory of psychological thriller.

Karen Gillan, also slated to appear in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy, stars opposite Australian actor Brenton Thwaites as brother/sister duo Kaylie and Tim Russell, respectively. Oculus is nothing if not well cast, and Gillan’s Kaylie portrays the perfect, no-nonsense survivalist, reminiscent of Sharni Vinson’s Erin in last year’s slasher flick You’re Next. Gillian gives a powerhouse performance and the film seems to revolve around her obsessive psychosis as she tries desperately to take revenge on the demonic spirits that tormented her and her brother as children.

The film is cleverly split into two distinct yet inherently intertwined stories; that of Kaylie and Tim as children when they first encountered the supernatural entity living inside their parents’ recently acquired mirror, and the events of the present day, as the adult siblings try to expose the truth about the mirror and salvage the family name. The story slips subtly between the two timelines which adds a nice basting of tension to an otherwise exceedingly simple plot. This narrative technique, however, necessitates the viewer to pay close attention, especially towards the end of the film, as the timelines begin to shift back and forth at an alarming pace and occasionally the protagonists and their younger doppelgängers appear onscreen at the same time.

After an extremely strong first half, Oculus seems to peter out a bit by the third act. In fact, it almost seems as though the film can’t really think of anything else for the characters to do once they’ve (specifically Tim) accepted that the mirror in question is actually haunted. Case in point: one of the film’s most emotionally intense scenes eschews the supernatural completely and instead consists of Tim trying to convince Kaylie that she’s gone mad as a result of her desperate and unhealthy obsession with the mirror, and after they’ve both come to terms with it, things get really bland really fast. The fact that the film is so overwhelmingly proud of its signature ghostly apparitions certainly doesn’t help matters either. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a mystery is always more frightening the less you see of it, and by the end of Oculus, those tantalizing ghosts and ghouls have taken center stage and lost all of their intrigue as they compete with the protagonists themselves for screen time.

My advice is to adjust your expectations before seeing Oculus. Admittedly, the trailer is a little misleading, but rest assured, the film stands up reasonably well as a thriller in it’s own right. While by no means a classic, Oculus remains a very solid film, and I can practically guarantee that it’s a more worthwhile experience that The Purge: Anarchy will turn out to be.

Rating: 3 out of 5

The Purge Review

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Occasionally, a critic will get a special opportunity to incorporate the title of a movie into a highly original and hilarious pun or box quote. This week, that pun virtually wrote itself with the arrival of The Purge. And indeed it was a purge, in as much as it evacuated it’s bowels all over the screen. BAM! And lo, my powers of clairvoyance have been proven accurate. Last Friday, I put all my eggs into the “inevitably terrible” basket, and my magnificent intellect has once again been validated.

Directed and written by James DeMonaco, The Purge tries and fails so badly at being a horror movie that you can almost hear it grunting from the strain. The striking thing about The Purge is that it’s kind of an amalgamation of other, much better horror movies. The Strangers certainly makes its influence felt, as does Funny Games, Assault on Precinct 13, and perhaps even Battle Royale. Not only does the film have almost nothing of its own to contribute, besides the damnably nonsensical premise, it fumbles every borrowed concept so badly that it almost taints the original property that it borrowed from simply by association.

Staring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey (Queen Cersei of House Lannister), The Purge follows the story of a family of four as they try to stay alive on the one night when all crime is legalized. It’s hard not to blame the actors for the copious shortcomings of the writing, but they certainly didn’t do it any favors. Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane as the Sandin Children are perhaps the most idiotic, ineffectual characters ever written into cinema. The thoughts of the characters seem to exist in some type of hypothetical nether-plane rather than have even the remotest grounding in the events happening around them. To me, it seems as though the events taking place in The Purge would have made more sense in the same universe as Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. Indeed, if you can convince yourself that The Purge is a spiritual sequel to that film, it could begin to justify the thoughts and actions of the characters.

What you need to understand is that The Purge is just one giant plot hole, and you’ll likely exhaust yourself if you try and search for logic where there is none to be found. It’s almost like DeMarco was so busy ripping off other movies that he forgot to string together a coherent plot. It’s clear that DeMarco wanted his film to fall into the horror genre, but he seemed to have completely the wrong idea of how to go about doing it. He substitutes teeth-gritting tension for jump scares and a meaningful antagonist with a clear motive for a pretentious moron with a bullshit pseudo-political message- which is a perfect segue into my next point.

The level of unironic, straight faced thematic shoehorning here is really gut-wrenchingly terrible. I’m almost reminded of Death Race 2000, in that we’re presented with an almost transparent, thinly spread yet simultaneously impenetrable political or societal message , but at least Death Race had the decency to indulge in self parody. Not only does The Purge have no idea what it wants to say, but what it does manage to say is dropped halfway through in lieu of the only marginally more interesting action sequences and stale jump scares.

Sadly, a sequel to The Purge has already been green-lit and is now in development. Not only does this film not deserve a sequel, it doesn’t deserved even half of the profits that it made upon release. The fact that this film, as poorly written and executed as it is, made so much money, is both encouraging and extremely disheartening. However, as far as you, the moviegoer, should be concerned, The Purge is most decidedly not worth the price of admission.

Rating: 1 out of 5

Stoker Review

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I’ve been excited for this film for a long time. With legendary filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s American debut, Stoker lives up to everything we’ve come to expect from such a renown director. At once a coming of age tale, thriller, and love story, this film weaves together visual beauty and hugely engrossing and dynamic characters to create nothing less than a work of art.

Park Chan-wook is quite possibly one of the most famous and well respected directors, Korean or otherwise, alive today. His iconic Vengeance Trilogy, consisting of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance have helped to establish him as one of the premier filmmakers of the 21st century. With this kind of reputation, the expectation placed upon him is naturally immense. It is my please to announce, then, that not only were my expectations met, but surpassed. Stoker’s masterful direction is a testament to Park’s dedication to his craft. Especially of note is the unique and singularly beautiful art style, which I suppose can best be described as a modern Gothic with a dash of mid-20th century charm. Moreover, visuals are so cohesive and consistent in tone and style that nothing ever seems jarringly out of place (a real danger when opting for stylized design) and provides for an extremely immersive experience.

In his previous films, Park had the tendency to re-cast the same actors in multiple movies, not unlike Tarantino in that respect. With his first foray into American cinema, however, he was forced to experiment with actors he didn’t have any previous experience with. That being said, casting was beautifully done. Leading lady Mia Wasikowska shines as India Stoker, bringing an incredible amount of depth and internal conflict into a character who is struggling to come into her own. Likewise, Matthew Goode of Watchmen fame plays the phenomenally unsettling Charlie Stoker. The interesting thing about Goode’s performance is that none of his on screen actions really betray his true motivation. Rather, we see a glance held a moment too long, a slight shift in body language, and the superficial perfection of his facade which all work together to imply and insinuate that some inner turmoil is brewing.

Stoker is perhaps in a difficult position from the outset by naturally having to be compared to Oldboy, arguably Park’s most well known work to date. Like Oldboy, in which dark imagery and ambiguous character motivation were abundant, Stoker masterfully incorporates those same elements to keep the audience guessing right up until the end. Likewise, Stoker is rife with understated sexualization, which works marvelously with India’s own development as a character. I’m tempted to suggest that Stoker is very Lolita-esque in some parts while being much more reminiscent of Bram Stokers’s Dracula in others. The fact remains that the film is filled with some beautifully executed tension due to the constant and inescapable presence of thinly veiled evil.

I would usually reserve this section of the review for various gripes that I may have, but truth be told, I don’t have many to indulge in. It’s been suggested by some friends of mine that the depiction of India’s high school was blatantly unrealistic and filled with the archetypical high school cast of characters. To me, such a depiction reminded me a lot of Brick (2005) and how the day to day school life was deliberately intended to be brutal and unforgiving and filled with as many unsavory characters as possible. Also like Brick, the dearth of adults in the film, outside of India’s immediate family, likely serves to emphasize how alone India actually is as she navigates her own feelings and desires.

I can say unequivocally that Park Chan-wook’s debut in the American film industry was a resounding success. Stoker is a massive achievement with both beautifully executed visuals and narrative. It is a smart, sexy, intriguing film and serves as yet another testament to Park’s skill as a director. Put Stoker high on your ‘must-see’ list for 2013.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Netflix Movie of the Week #5: Brick

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Well, it’s that time of the week again, and if you’re in the mood to relax at home this weekend, why not take in one of my personal favorite movies? Brick, released in 2005, is billed as a neo-noir thriller and is directed by Rian Johnson, also responsible for Looper. Brick is unique in that it’s beautifully atmospheric direction and dark tone really serve to emphasize Johnson’s brutal depiction of day to day high school life.

Starring my one, true love Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brick centers on the struggle of loner Brendan Frye as he seeks the truth behind the disappearance and consequent death of his ex-girlfriend. In his search for vengeance, Brendan becomes deeply embroiled in an underground narcotics operation as his quest takes him all the way to the top of the organization’s hierarchy and threatens to involve him an an all out gang war.

Brick is a beautiful film in terms of both visuals and narrative. Heavily influenced by noir films of a bygone era, the characters in Brick speak with a kind of shorthand slang (think a Shakespearean production of A Clockwork Orange) that is at once beautifully poetic and hauntingly brutal in its own right. JGL’s performance is outstanding as he portrays the pain of both the loss of his ex as well as the estrangement from larger society. Our sympathies can’t help but be stirred as Brendan refuses to give up his quest, even when his injuries make him essentially a mixture of powdered organs and thickened blood held together by sheer determination. Since it’s release, Brick has been hailed as a cult classic, and for good reason. Although the unique style and admittedly sometimes hard to follow dialogue may be off-putting for some viewers, the cinematic experience that you stand to gain in return is well worth it in the end.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Side Effects Review

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Perhaps you’ve heard the deliciously Catch-22-esque line of logic stating that after a person is deemed insane, everything they may do after that point, even if it involves laying down lasting and irrefutable proof to the contrary, will be essentially invalid because they have already been pronounced insane. As fellow author and arguably crazy person, Gabriel, likes to say, the feeling of being so completely trapped and imprisoned behind this impenetrable wall of logic is a truly terrifying experience. We’re quite familiar with the idea of the protagonist become entangled in this paradox, but not so much when it happens to someone who actually deserves it. Enter Side Effects, which tells the story of mystery and murder within the medical industrial complex, and very nearly pulls it off.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh of the Oceans franchise and more recently Magic Mike, it’s clear that Side Effects prefers style to substance. Indeed, as impressive as Soderbergh’s characteristic semi-minimalist visual aesthetic is, one can’t help but to feel strangely gypped in the end, as though the surf and turf dinner that you were excitedly expecting contained a mediocre steak and a baked potato instead of a lobster. Though stark and markedly atmospheric the visuals may be, they aren’t impressive enough to compensate from the shortcomings of the story.

Channing Tatum reprises his cooperation with Soderbergh as disgraced Wall Street big-shot Martin Taylor. Rooney Mara of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo likewise gives an admirable performance as mentally unstable femme fatale Emily Taylor. Mara seems almost tailor made for this role, as her meek, feeble exterior masks a smoldering deviancy which comes across beautifully in her performance. The always fabulous Jude Law also makes an appearance as ambitious psychiatrist Jonathan Banks, bringing some not unwelcome British charm and panache to the otherwise thoroughly American affair.

Side Effects is unique in the sense that it seems to shift directions entirely mid-way through the film. The first half generally focuses on Emily’s (Mara) supposed struggle with a life endangering case of depression. The focus then shifts to the plight of Dr. Banks (Law) as he attempts to unravel a nefarious conspiracy amid a crumbling family life. The switch, instead of feeling schizophrenic and unfocused, serves to create a sense of underlying intensity and urgency as our sympathies must necessarily lie with both Emily and Dr. Banks simultaneously, at least for a short time. For the most part, the gripping drama is extremely effective and presented within a very tight, cohesive narrative structure. Unfortunately, fatally, this psychological thriller skimps in the arena most vital to its success; the execution of the twist.

For fans of Prometheus, the grand revelation, or rather the manner in which it is delivered, will likely seem disappointingly familiar. Prometheus had the same problem Side Effects has, in that they succeed in crafting a beautifully engrossing world, both in a visual and narrative sense, and then proceed to unabashedly tell the audience the plot twist with nary a second thought. When you’re dealing with the psychological horror genre, intrigue is like a beautiful courtesan coyly exposing her upper thigh to entrance you and keep you involved in the proceedings as exposition is weaved into the narrative gradually, culminating in a shocking reveal, augmented with a feeling of both weight and substance. Explaining the twist to the audience outright is like revealing that the aforementioned beautiful courtesan is actually a hastily thrown-together cardboard cutout with a house dress thrown over it.

I admit that I’m disappointed in the film because it was within spitting distance of greatness but makes a wrong turn down Mediocrity Lane. The aesthetic was there, the characters were there, the plot was there, but the reveal is such a let down and ultimately makes an otherwise excellent film forgettable. Soderbergh fans will likely enjoy it for no other reason that it being rife with his trademark style. Though admittedly a disappointment, if you’re bored one evening you could certainly do worse than Side Effects.

Rating: 3 out of 5